Pittsylvania County History

County Courthouse
Pittsylvania County Courthouse
built in 1853 and in use today.


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Historical Overview

Pittsylvania County was formed in 1767 in the south-central region of the current Commonwealth of Virginia. It was named for William Pitt, the First Earl of Chatham, who served as Prime Minister of Great Britain from 1766 to 1768. He reportedly opposed the harsh colonial policies established by the Crown.

The Virginia census of 1840 listed the county as first in the production of tobacco, second in the production of corn, and second in the number of inhabitants, having a population of 26,398.

Geography and Modern Pittsylvania County

The County's present boundaries were established in 1777. It is the largest county in Virginia with 982.89 square miles located in the south-central region of the state. The population is approximately 62,000.

The County borders North Carolina to the south, Henry County to the southwest, Halifax County to the east, Campbell County to the northeast, Bedford County to the northwest and Franklin County to the northwest. The terain has hills, valleys and plateaus averaging 400 to 800 feet above sea level. The highest point is Smith Mountain which is 2,043 feet tall.

The Town of Chatham is the county seat. Other towns in the county are Hurt and Gretna. They are each governed by a mayor and town council. The City of Danville is within the boundaries of Pittsylvania County, but it is recognized by the state as an independent city. The county is divided into seven voting districts that each district selects a representative to serve on the Board of Supervisors, the county's governing body.

According to the Maud Clement's History of Pittsylvania County, the county's 19th century economy was based on tobacco production. Plantation villages grew up along the rivers and Danville eventually emerged as a trade center. Today, Pittsylvania County's economy still has a strong agricultural component, but business and technology-based industries are drawn to the area because of its workforce, educational training and access to highway, rail, and air transportation.

Pre-Colonial Era

The first people to make Pittsylvania County their home were Indians. Their villages stood beside the streams and their corn fields waved in the rich bottom lands. When European settlers came into this section (about 1740), many of these sites had already been abandoned, but at so recent a date that the locations of his villages and farm lands could be easily recognized. They were mentioned by the first surveyors to mark the lines of early land patents.

The Indians of Pittsylvania were of the Sapony tribe, members of the Sioux, speaking the same language and following the same customs. Their chief towns were Pintahae and Sapon Town, situated along the Sapony River (now known as the Staunton). Smaller towns and forts were scattered through the county. Nearby tribes were the friendly Toleros, whose chief town was near the present city of Roanoke, and the Occaneechi, who lived at the junction of the Dan and Staunton rivers.

It was through the fur trade that the Indians of Pittsylvania became known to the colonists as early as 1640. The first written account of Pittsylvania's Indians is found in the diary of a trader named John Lederer, who visited them in 1670, spending three weeks at Sapon Town. He travelled alone except for an Indian guide, Jackzetavan. The Saponees questioned him closely and after deciding that he meant no harm, welcomed him warmly.

Lederer described the Saponees as being tall and war-like. Colonel William Byrd, who knew them in later years, said, "They are the bravest and honestest Indians Virginia ever knew," and that there was "Something great and venerable in their countenances."

Lederer found these people of good intelligence and understanding, and their chiefs to be men of great eloquence. He said that although they lacked the learning that the study of books gave, they were not wanting in a knowledge of rhetoric and government. "I have heard their seniors deliver themselves with as much eloquence and judgment as I should have expected of men of civil education and literature."

Early Chatham

When Pittsylvania County assumed its present size in 1777, the county seat moved from the Callands community to a more central location to a town known as Pittsylvania County Courthouse (present-day Chatham). Since the change in the location of the courthouse was made during the Revolutionary War, no court buildings were erected until after the close of the War. In 1782 a white pillared red-brick courthouse was built at the cost of 4,000 pounds of tobacco. The original courthouse was located where Chatham's Town Hall now stands at 16 Court Street.

In 1806, a controversy arose over where to build a new courthouse. This dispute eventually drew in the Virginia General Assembly which confirmed a new location and also changed the name of the town to 'Competition.' In 1852, the town's name was changed to Chatham reflecting that the county's namesake was also the First Earl of Chatham.

Main Street and adjoining sections of town have earned National Historic District designation. Chatham and its historic buildings have earned designation on the National Register of Historic Places and the Virginia Landmarks Registry.

Establishment of Gretna

The history of Gretna began with the building of the Virginia Midland Railroad, which was completed in 1876. A railway commission came out from Lynchburg for the purpose of locating depots at the most convenient points. The citizens of the county had been notified, and wherever a group had formed the train came to a stop, the commission got off and heard the citizens put forth their claim for a depot. Upon their return to Lynchburg one member of the party wrote a letter which was published in the Pittsylvania Tribune, expressing their pleasure in the trip, and their amazement at the immense amount of farm produce grown in the northern part of the county. They were also pleased to see so active a lumbering business. The citizens of the county believed so heartily in the railroad as a great aid to their economic life, that by popular subscription they built a branch line to Rocky Mount, Franklin County, which they leased to the Midland Railroad.

With the creation of the Franklin and Pittsylvania Railroad in 1879, the town was called Franklin Junction. The post office was called Elba. The town was incorporated in February 1901 and the chapter of the town of Elba was renewed in 1912. The name was changed to Gretna in 1916.

The Town of Hurt

The Town of Hurt is in northern Pittsylvania County and borders Campbell County along the Staunton River near the town of Altavista. The land surrounding the Hurt area was originally part of a land grant made by King George II to Benjamin Clements in 1741. Clements resided at Clement Hill where gun powder was made during the Revolutionary and Civil wars.

Major John L. Hurt supervised the gun powder production in the Civil War. He married into the Clement family and became owner of the plantation. He left the estate to his nephew and namesake John L. Hurt Jr. When the nephew died in 1964, he willed the lands west of route 29 to the town of Hurt on the condition it be incorporated within three years. The town was incorporated in 1966 and thus received the land.

Sources and Additional Information

Portions of this page were taken from Maud Carter Clement's An Abbreviated History of Pittsylvania County, Virginia , ca. 1952 available at http://www.victorianvilla.com/sims-mitchell/local/clement/mc/abb/ at Mitchells Publications (www.mitchellspublications.com)